Saturday, October 5, 2002
Liberalisation is making the adult entertainment business respectable
THE mood at this week's board meeting of the newly formed Organisation of Adult Trades and Services (OATS) was surprisingly earnest. A policeman from the vice squad took copious notes while a distributor of hard-core videos, Anna Kieran, denounced the "market-trader mentality" of "cowboys" who give the industry an "image problem".
Along with negotiating lower insurance premiums, credit card charges and other prosaic questions, the big issue was planning the sex industry's event of the year, the Erotica exhibition in November. Through the new-found respectability came the occasional glimpse of the industry's old ways. Spearmint Rhino, the world's biggest chain of strip clubs, has been banned from the exhibition after its boss in Britain misbehaved at last year's event. "He wouldn't listen, and in the end I had to get one of my bouncers to smack him," recalled a huffy sex baron.
Although flirting and pole-dancing lessons are planned, the trade fair will mainly feature the products side of the industry pornography, sex toys and the like. These days, most of this part of the industry is legal. Definitions of obscenity are now so lax that little apart from child pornography is banned. Since a change in the rules about hard-core videos in July 2000, the number of films applying for the steamy R18 certificate from Britain's film censors has quadrupled. Distributors pay up to £2,000 ($3,100) for the privilege and fume about illegal competitors who import unlicensed videos, or sell pirated versions.
As the industry has been legalised, so it has grown up. These days bits of it look much like any other business. The trade association has hired a professional lobbyist, and hopes to commission academic research to back its push for consistent, evenhanded regulation and tougher enforcement. Its members accept there is plenty of room for more consolidation, efficiency and competition. Margins are huge, the market murky. The industry hopes its products, like contraceptives in the past century, will become cheap, reliable, and unremarkable.
But for the other half of the industry, sex services, there is little early prospect of gaining comparable acceptance. Although prostitution itself is not illegal in Britain, almost everything to do with it is. If prostitutes (sex workers, in industry parlance) get together and set up a brothel, they can be prosecuted for living off each other's "immoral earnings".
As a result, proper policing and regulation are impossible. In the legal twilight, prostitutes are vulnerable to violence and extortion. Dozens are murdered every year. Cheated consumers rarely complain. Those trying to run a respectable business find it difficult. Paul Edwards, an OATS member who owns two massage parlours in Northampton, complains: "We do everything right and legal apart from what we actually do."
A new push for respectability comes from the prostitutes themselves, who are increasingly vocal and well-organised. A grandly named International Union of Sex Workers has affiliated to a mainstream trade union, the GMB. Its biggest success so far is a fully unionised lap-dancing bar, Majingo's, in London's Docklands. But there is a long way to go. The union has only 200 members. Britain has an estimated 90,000 prostitutes.
The government is planning another look at prostitution laws. Decriminalisation would not solve all the industry's problems the details of licensing brothels, in particular, are tricky, when the line between commercial sex and other kinds is so fuzzy but it would help. Could paid-for sex become as socially acceptable as, say, physiotherapy? Many punters would miss the sleaze.
Created: October 8, 2002
Last modified: October 8, 2002
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